This week, we begin the final major section of Paul’s letter to the Romans. In this section of the letter, Paul changes his tone as he prepares to bring the letter to a close. Although there is much we can learn from this part of the letter, the highly compressed, weighty, theological topics are largely behind Paul at this point. His tone here tends to be more personal and resembles the tone he speaks with in the beginning of the letter in chapter one. In the paragraph we’ll look at this morning, Paul is reflecting on his apostolic ministry which was primarily devoted to planting churches among the Gentiles. One reason Paul chooses to bring this up is probably because, although he had never visited the church in Rome, he HAS just issued some very direct commands about some very sensitive issues like the weaker brothers in the Roman church. It makes sense for Paul at this point to reaffirm to the Roman believers that his authority does not come from Paul, the outsider, but from God Himself. As he reflects on the nature of his ministry, he reestablishes his right to give the sometimes hard commands he has issued in this letter. As we read this text, notice in these verses how many times he stresses the God-centeredness of his ministry. That is one of the main purpose of this paragraph.
With that as background, lets read Romans 15:14-21. Paul says, “I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another. 15I have written you quite boldly on some points, as if to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me 16to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. 17Therefore I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God. 18I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done-- 19by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. 20It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else's foundation. 21Rather, as it is written: "Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand."
In verse 14, Paul compliments the church on their spiritual maturity. We saw in
Chapter 1 that, though Paul had never been to the church of Rome, he had heard of it by reputation. He says in verse 8, “…I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you because your faith is being reported all over the world.” This was clearly one of the bastions of Christianity in Paul’s day and he encourages them for their maturity. In verse 15, he explains that his bold teaching is to remind them. We know that so much of what is necessary to know as a Christian we have heard many times before. Peter, in Second Peter 1:12-13 says, “So I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have. 13I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body, “
We are not computers who are programmed and then just automatically follow our programming--we are humans who need reminding. We are not trains placed on tracks that never leave their pre-determined course. We are impulsive creatures who have a strong tendency to wander from the path. We are constantly in need of being put back “on the right path” and that is done as we are reminded of the truths of the faith. If we ever respond to a Bible teaching by turning up our nose at it because we “know that already” and proceed to tune out, we are denying the frailty of our nature. The fact that we know something does not mean we are practicing it and it is as we are reminded of these truths of Scripture that the Holy Spirit makes whatever mid-course corrections are necessary in us and there are generally many necessary corrections. If a church whose faith was “reported all over the world” needed reminding, then we can be assured we do as well.
These first one and a half verses are transitional to Paul’s main burden and that is, to communicate that he has written to these Romans Christians not on the basis of any personal prowess or authority, but on the authority of God. This point is so crucial for us to be reminded of today as well. The same truth Paul labors to point out to these Romans is just as valid for us in all our ministries. That is, our lives and ministries, like Paul’s must be GOD-centered and not about ourselves. That is our main point and everything else we will say comes under that heading. In these next seven verses, we can find three ways in which Paul shows that his ministry is thoroughly about God. It is God centered. Paul here shows that his life, his ministry is FROM God, FOR God and is only possible WITH God.
First, let’s see how Paul shows that his ministry is FROM God. We know Paul’s ministry is from God because he says in verse 15 that his ministry springs from the grace of God’s call on his life. He says, “I have written you quite boldly on some points, as if to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles…” In chapter one, Paul says he is called by God to be an apostle for the purpose of “call[ing] people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith.” There he speaks of his ministry as being from God by using the word “call.” Here in chapter 15, he speaks of his ministry being from God in terms of the grace God has given him? What’s the difference? None. Paul is stating the same truth two different ways. He has the right to boldly remind the church of Rome because of the grace of God shown in his calling to minister.
We know this call to minister to the Gentiles was not Paul’s idea not only from this text, but from his call narrative in Acts chapter nine. Christ tells Ananias he is to go to Straight Street in Damascus to pray for Saul of Tarsus to receive his sight. When Ananias hesitates at this mission because of Saul’s reputation for killing Christians, Jesus tells him, “This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles…” Ananias actually hears about Paul’s call to ministry before Paul does. This call came from Christ, not Paul. Paul fleshes out some of the details of his call to minister to the Gentiles in verses 20 and 21. He says that the nature of his specific call was to preach and plant churches in places where “Christ was not known” in the area ranging from Jerusalem to Illyricum. He grounds that sense of call in a text he quotes from Isaiah 11. “Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.” Paul not only had the very Person of Jesus calling Him, he also finds his call in the words of Scripture. Both personally and in the Word of God, Paul knew he was doing what he was doing because God told him to do it.
Being called by God to a particular ministry is utterly essential if you are to bear fruit in that ministry. The reason is all truly fruitful ministry comes ONLY from God, not man. If it comes from anyone other than God, then that person would have a right to boast in themselves if they see some fruit and God says in First Corinthians 1, “no flesh shall boast in my presence.” So, in order for God to get all the glory, any ministry, any spiritual mission, task or endeavor must originate ONLY in God’s heart. Any person who ministers must be called by God—it must be GOD’S idea, not the person’s. If God calls someone to do something in His kingdom, that person can expect God to give him the supernatural grace to perform that ministry. God would never call us to do something without equipping and enabling us to do it. Conversely, if a person is NOT called by God to a ministry, if it is only his or her independent idea, then why would God give grace to that person to do something He did not commission them to do? Its preposterous. The only way anything of eternal consequence, that bears the mark of God’s supernatural grace ever gets done in the kingdom is if those doing it are appointed by God to do it. It was not Paul’s idea to minister to the Gentiles, it came from God and therefore he could speak with God’s authority and not his own.
Paul’s ministry was from God in another respect. Not only was Paul sent from God, but the content of his ministry was from God as well. We see this in verses 16 and 19. In both places Paul implies the main task of his ministry is “proclaiming the gospel.” Notice how he refers to this gospel he proclaimed. In verse 16 he calls it “the gospel of God” and in verse 19 he calls it the “gospel of Christ.” This is a powerful text equating God and Christ because he uses “Christ” and “God” interchangeably. But in addition to that, he makes clear that not only does his mission comes from God, but his message likewise comes from God alone. In this text where Paul is striving to show the origin, source and beginning of his message, he emphasizes that it comes from the heart of God.
Again, this is so vital. We must know that this message of the gospel we are called to share is God’s and therefore carries with it great power. Only the gospel can, through the Holy Spirit, make dead people alive. No message that originates in the heart of man can do that miracle. Only the Gospel of God has the supernatural power to change lives and communities and nations. He has said in chapter one, “I am not ashamed of this gospel for it is the power of God for salvation of everyone who believes…” We must place our confidence ONLY in this message that comes from God. When we share it with others, we must not change the message to make it easier to accept. If we do that, we are saying we do not believe this gospel as it stands is powerful enough to change a rebel sinner into an adoring worshipper. No, we must tell it straight in love. People who have never placed their trust in Christ and his atoning work on Calvary are lost no matter how nice they are, they are dead in trespasses and sins and the wrath of a holy God rests on them. Their only hope rests in Christ’s sufficient sacrifice. If they truly believe on Christ, repenting of their sins, He will forgive their sins, resurrect them to new life in Christ—a different life marked by obedience that comes from faith. That is the gospel and we can have confidence in that message because it comes from God. No softening or editing is necessary. In those called by God to believe, that message will pierce their hearts and change their lives and we can present it without timidity or apology. We, like Paul, have nothing to be ashamed of in the gospel of God. Paul’s life and ministry were FROM GOD.
The second way Paul shows the God-centeredness of his life and ministry is, His ministry was totally FOR GOD. When I say that Paul ministered for God, I am not saying that he was doing God a big favor. God doesn’t need our favors or anything else we can give him. What is meant is that Paul ministered on behalf of God or as a representative of God. Paul clearly saw himself as only a representative of God. We see this in verses 16 and 17 where we see God has given Paul grace, “to be a minister of Christ to the Gentiles with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” Do you hear all the priestly language Paul borrows from Old Testament temple worship to metaphorically describe his ministry? Verse 16 is more literally translated, “ministering as a priest the gospel of God.” Paul sees himself as a priest of God standing before the altar and, through the gospel, offering as a sacrifice to God the Gentiles who have believed in Christ. He offers the message to the Gentiles as a priest and he offers the believing Gentiles to God as a priest. The text says this sacrifice of the Gentiles is acceptable only because God has called Paul to do this priestly ministry and because the offering has been sanctified or set apart for God’s use by the Holy Spirit.
This picture of Paul, a Jew offering the Gentiles to God as a sacrificial offering is not original with Paul. In the closing lines of Isaiah in chapter 66:19-20, God tells Isaiah the role the Jews will have in bringing Gentiles to God. He says of the Jews, “I will set a sign among them, and I will send some of those who survive to the nations--to Tarshish, to the Libyans and Lydians (famous as archers), to Tubal and Greece, and to the distant islands that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory. They will proclaim my glory among the nations. 20And they will bring all your brothers, from all the nations, to my holy mountain in Jerusalem as an offering to the Lord--on horses, in chariots and wagons, and on mules and camels," says the Lord. "They will bring them, as the Israelites bring their grain offerings, to the temple of the Lord in ceremonially clean vessels.” Paul sees himself as one of those Jews who has been given the priestly duty of bringing the Gentiles to God as a sacrificial offering.
This is consistent with 12:1 where we are all called to offer ourselves as “living sacrifices” to God. Think about the God centeredness of this metaphor Paul is using here. He is a priest of God, the Gentiles are a grain offering presented to God, the gospel is God’s tool to harvest the grain for Himself so that in all of this He can show forth His glory. Where is every bit of the emphasis there? God. The priests belong to God—they minister before Him. All they do is present their offering to God, an offering provided by GOD! The priest doesn’t create the offering—the gospel does. The Holy Spirit, through the gospel makes worshippers out of sinners. The Holy Spirit is the one who makes the offering acceptable to God along with God’s call of the priest to make the offering. The main character in that picture is God. The priest is seen only as the one who, by God’s calling and grace (it’s not his idea to be a priest, but God’s) offers the sacrificial offering to God. Its God’s call, God’s job, God’s gospel and God’s offering for God’s glory. Do you see what a limited role Paul sees for himself? He’s just the guy who, for God’s own good reasons, has been commissioned to present God’s offering to Him. That’s not exactly a self-exalting picture Paul paints of himself, is it? This is even more remarkable when you consider that Paul was one of THE APOSTLES—those original men commissioned to take this gospel and who, according to Jesus will in heaven “sit on 12 thrones judging the 12 tribes of Israel.” THAT kind of man, arguably the most productive, grace-filled apostle, is…one who stands before God to present Him His offering. This ministry is not about Paul, it’s about God. It is FROM God and it is FOR God.
Finally, Paul’s ministry is only possible WITH God. The ministry God called Paul to do was only possible with the supernatural power and intervention of God. The NASB translation of verses 17 and 18 reads, “Therefore in Christ Jesus I have found reason for boasting in things pertaining to God. For I will not presume to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me.” Paul will boast or, as the NIV renders it, “glory” only in what is of God. He will speak only of what Christ has accomplished through him. Paul, after three missionary journeys and perhaps dozens of newly churches planted in formerly pagan lands doesn’t see himself as having accomplished anything. All the converts, the new churches, the daring prison escapes were Christ’s accomplishments—Paul was only the vehicle God used to accomplish these miracles.
We see this same testimony in First Corinthians where Paul reflects on his ministry in comparison to the other apostles. He says of himself in 15:9, “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them--yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” No one ever accomplished anything acceptable to God unless Christ does it through them. If that is humbling to us, then so be it. It is simply the way it is.
We see too that the results of Paul’s ministry are possible only with God. Paul says the results of Christ’s accomplishments is “leading the Gentiles to obey God.” The NASB says, “resulting in the obedience of the Gentiles…” That was the fruit of Paul’s ministry, the obedience of those he offered to God as a sacrifice. The result was not just the Gentiles, but the Gentiles obedience. That absolutely requires the power of God. Now, if all you are trying to do is register decisions for Christ—“You’re going to hell, that’s not a good thing, pray this prayer so you can go to heaven—say yes to Jesus” that can be done without God. There is no special grace required to get people to do that—to get someone to pray some prayer totally disconnected from his sinful heart and lifestyle. God isn’t needed there. But if you are calling people to obedience—calling people to change from being rebels to worshippers—calling spiritually dead people to life—calling sinners to repentance, to follow Jesus, to pick up their cross and die for Him—THAT takes a series of miracles! And THAT is what Paul did—He called people to the obedience that comes from faith. That is utterly unthinkable unless God does it.
Finally, Paul speaks of the supernatural quality of his ministry in verse 18. This calling of the Gentiles to obedience was done “by the power of signs and miracles, though the power of the Spirit.” God is a miracle working God and this was manifest in Paul’s ministry. Only God can do these things—Paul can’t. A person can’t independently work a miracle any more than a gun can fire itself or a car can drive itself. There is no power to do that without God. The power comes from God’s Spirit. Paul’s ministry was FROM God, FOR God and only possible WITH God.
Now, what does Paul’s ministry and the character of it have to say to us here today? Let’s make some application to our lives from this text. Even though this text is about the character of Paul’s apostolic ministry, it has much to say to us who are not apostles, but who ARE nonetheless servants and priest of God. The reformers recovered the truth that all of life is sacred and as priests of God, we are all called to serve Him through every area of our lives. First Corinthians 10:31 says, “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do it all for the glory of God.” Although we are not called in the same way Paul was, nonetheless, we should all have a sense that we are where we are because God put us there. This includes those who work in the home as well as those who work outside the home. If we have that sense of call, we can be assured God will give us the grace to live out that call. If we have this sense of his call on our lives, we will much more easily see the sacred nature of our tasks because everything we do is sacred because it is all done before God as priests who minister before Him. Changing a tire or a diaper is a sacred act for the New Covenant priest of God. We are put where we are intentionally by God to be His light in that corner of the world—to be His vessel through which He will accomplish ministry to others. It is so easy to just see our jobs only as the way we earn money, but our ministry is elsewhere. That is a betrayal of our role as priests who serve before God whether we are at home, the office or church.
Second and related to this—do we see ourselves as priests standing before God? Is God the main thing in our lives and do we see ourselves first and foremost as His representatives doing HIS ministry in all of life’s situations? Do we spend more of our time being amazed and awed by Him and His grace and His power at work in and through us, or are we more focussed on our own gifts and talents and problems? Is our life intentionally centered around bringing glory to God as Paul’s was? When we sin, do we grieve because we failed and our pride has been hurt, or do we grieve because as God’s priest, we have dishonored His Name? Are we inclined to take credit for the ministries we do or are we quick to say as Paul was, “YET NOT I, but the grace of God in me?” Do we see ourselves consciously as merely the vessels through which Christ accomplishes his ministry or do we feel all the weight and responsibility to do it on our own? Christ tells us, “His yoke is easy and his burden is light.” He is the one who accomplishes it through us. If we are feeling burned out in a ministry, then we have in some way been trying to do that which only Christ can do.
Finally, do our lives and ministries bear the mark of that which is only possible with God? Is there the strong, sweet smell of God’s grace about our lives and ministries? What in our life are we doing with such anointing and dedication and intensity that the only explanation is divine intervention? None of us here are going to have Paul’s apostolic ministry, but as priests of God who represent Him, our lives should demand an explanation outside of our own native talents and abilities? If you can’t think of any area that emits a supernatural scent, then ask a more basic question, “What am I truly trusting God for in my life? What in my life am I trusting God to do, that is totally impossible apart from his miraculous work?” If we are drawing a blank there, it is no wonder there is little evidence of God’s power in our lives. If we are not trusting and expecting God to do those kinds of things in our lives, he will not do them. The truth is, just to live out the life of Christ as a priest of God in the place where he put us requires miracles if we are being obedient to God. But if, when it comes right down to it, we don’t expect God to do anything more than to make us nice, socially acceptable people, then why would He fill our lives with any special outpouring of His power? We don’t need it. What are we asking and trusting God to do in our lives and in our church? That will often dictate how much of God’s grace is present in our ministries.
God calls us, like Paul to see that our ministries are OF God and FOR God and only possible WITH God. May He give us grace to be God centered for His glory.
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